When I tell people that I’m a graduate student studying English, the two most common reactions are:
1. “Oh no, I’d better watch what I say around you! I’m not very good at grammar,” or
2. “That’s admirable. People these days don’t know how to speak English correctly… [cue rant about millennials using improper grammar]”
Some people are resistant to linguistic changes, or linguistic choices they perceive to be linguistic changes. Languages are not static structures; they change over time. Languages are our way of communicating with one another, so they evolve to suit changing cultural needs. Nonetheless, some people would like to force standardization onto structures that are inherently fluid. For example, not everyone supports the use of “they/them/their” as a singular pronoun. ‘Correct’ English, according to such thinkers, dictates that “they/them/their” can only be used to refer to more than one person. There are a couple of things worth questioning about this way of thinking.
First of all, there is historic precedent for using “they/them/their” to refer to a single person of an unknown gender. The singular “they/them/their” emerged in the fourteenth century, became a popular topic of debate in the nineteenth century, and has been a matter of discussion ever since. Secondly, language should evolve to meet societal needs. Twenty-first century society needs a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to nonbinary or genderfluid folks. There is no reason the English language should not change to suit that need.
Both of the above arguments try to place the singular ‘they’ within the realm of ‘correct’ English. However, I’d also like to argue that English majors don’t have to prioritize ‘correct’ English. The type of English that gets defined as ‘correct’ has a lot to do with privilege. Privileged individuals choose which manifestations of English should be defined as ‘correct.’ Children who live in the most well-funded school districts or have the money to go to private schools are the ones most likely to speak ‘correct’ English.
Yet people who love to study literature care about ‘incorrect’ English, too. We study works written in regional dialects, pidgin versions of English, and mixtures of English and other languages. Authors like Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger are prolific not despite their use of ‘incorrect’ English but because of it.
Dialects add color and flavor to language. Those of us who love studying literature enjoy books with realistic dialogue, whether such dialogue conforms to writing conventions or not. Meanwhile, there is not a standardized version of English that transcends time and societal changes. Thus, to the grammar-savvy and the grammatically challenged, I say: Let’s stop worrying so much about standardization and start appreciating both literature and language for the useful social constructs they are.
Stacie is a Masters candidate in the Department of English